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Dublin: 7 °C Tuesday 19 March, 2019
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Opinion: Let's drop the narrative of the undeserving poor and other myths that dehumanise people

My new play attempts to capture the perspective of young people who have been in state care – humanity has to be at the core of our response, writes Fionnuala Kennedy.

Fionnuala Kennedy

I GREW UP in West Belfast.

Born into the conflict, I lived in an area that was hugely politically active.

We were aware from a very young age of politics, the fight for rights, chalking political slogans to the ground where we played. I knew well the faces of John Major and Margaret Thatcher – more from Spitting Image than anything else.

I also had an in-depth knowledge of the benefits system from panicked phone calls and conversations, getting sent to the neighbour’s house to see if their ‘bru’ came in that week.

My primary school was a mix of kids from my area and children from a more affluent one down the road. I was acutely aware that my parents had less money than others, that we were different.

The embarrassment and shame of having to queue up with a few others from our class to get our free school dinner ticket was a daily dread.

One Christmas when I was eight years old, I remember seeing the news that my classmate had been shot in a bar when playing snooker with his father. The shock for me was realising this wasn’t just between the adults. Age didn’t matter. You were someone’s enemy and you never knew why.

Circumstances

Lingering inside me always was the feeling that we deserved it because of ‘our circumstances’.

Ah, your circumstances: your name, where you’re from, where you live, how you speak, what you look like, what you have, what you don’t have. I was surrounded by the narratives, the judgements and the justifications for all of it.

It creeps into your head. When you don’t think you’re equal to someone else, when you think other people are simply better because of their circumstances, you’re in danger – in many different ways.

I continue to be fascinated with how society creates narratives about people and what that subsequently gives permission to.

These narratives inform my work as a theatre-maker in some shape or form.

Undeserving poor

For a few years, I’ve been campaigning against the Tory party’s brutal Welfare Reform Bill as part of the Participation and the Practice of Rights Project

People with disabilities have had much-needed benefits stopped, while others have been sanctioned without due process and left with absolutely no income for weeks.

Then there is the controversial ‘two-child policy’ which limits welfare benefits to people who have more than two children. Rape victims can get an exemption from that rule – but they have to prove that they conceived the child as a consequence of rape. 

The narratives around people on benefits have been ramped up to allow for this callous bill.

Recently, I was tasked with writing workshops with a parents group to share stories of people living in poverty at a conference in Belfast to raise awareness and tackle these false narratives about people on benefits. 

I worked with women who have been through some of the darkest times imaginable because they are living in areas of deprivation, with some battling custody of children, addiction, illness or violence – all while trying to provide for their children from meagre benefits.

After presenting the stories, I was told by the organisers that the women’s stories didn’t ‘relate to the subject of poverty’. They had previously referenced ‘I, Daniel Blake’, where the protagonist has worked all his life and due to illness had to sign on.

I suspect that the women, whose stories I told, were viewed as the undeserving poor.

There was ignorance of the nuances of poverty and to the circumstances that propel people into it. They’re not the narratives we want to hear.

Dehumanising the ‘other’

I’m currently working with a group of people seeking asylum in Northern Ireland.

Their circumstances are unimaginable. Talking to asylum seekers – especially to those with children – I’m in awe of their resilience in the face of a brutal system.  

Brexit gave further permission to the negative narratives around immigrants and asylum seekers, allowing us again to justify cruelty to another human being in defence of our quality of life.

The narrative tells us we can strip some people of their humanity – they are the ‘other’.

This narrative then gives permission for cruel legislation, for racist attacks, for violence, for dehumanising men, women and children to a label, to severe stress, to violence, to starvation and destitution.

In working with asylum seekers to share their stories, we debated those stories, including the fact that one of them smokes and can’t afford tobacco on the £37 a week income they are expected to live on.

Will highlighting his story undermine our argument? Will people say, ‘Well you shouldn’t be spending your money on tobacco?’

Even though for him, living in a foreign country with no family and in a highly stressful situation, having a smoke is the only small joy in his life.

Is he undeserving?

Removed

For my new play, Removed, I had the privilege of working with young people with care experience, to hear their stories and mainstage them.

I cannot even begin to imagine this life but I tried to capture the truth in the interviews I conducted.

The recurring theme was the young people thinking they had done something bad to be removed from their families and placed in care. 

How do our assumptions about who is ‘deserving’ facilitate us to ignore the plight of some care leavers and to create a system that may not serve them but instead reinforces to them that they are bad?

When we are presented with a young person with care experience who has been through extraordinarily difficult times, but they’re not the ‘Annie’ we have in our heads, how do we really respond?

It is no coincidence that many young people with care experience end up in prison.

The young people I interviewed were building their lives having suffered great trauma, but also having to continually battle against other people’s perceptions and judgements about them.

And it is a battle. One that makes their lives incredibly difficult on top of everything else they are going through.

We all contribute to the narratives. We are the enemies they never asked for. I’ve done it many times and try to work out where it comes from.

It feels to me that there is now a sense of people becoming aware of it – in wider debates around victims of rape and women seeking abortions.

We are possibly moving towards a place where we are ready to ask ourselves why we want the perfect victims and situations, in order for us to sanction people in desperate circumstances with our support?

Humanity has to be at the core of our responses and change cannot happen fast enough.

Fionnuala Kennedy is the author of Removed a new play inspired by interviews with young people growing up in care in Northern Ireland, created by Prime Cut Productions in collaboration Voice Of Young People In Care and in association with Young at Art. 

Removed is currently running in the Belfast Children’s Festival until Saturday 16 March 2019. 

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Fionnuala Kennedy

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